Emergency backup helps keep lessons going

Hurricane-force winds and pelting rain can wreak havoc on a campus’s IT infrastructure. At Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., where tropical storms are common, acting IT director John Duff and his staff maintain an off-site data center that keeps the school’s computer systems running during and after the most vicious storms.

Eckerd’s attention to data backup, as well as the expanded wireless access in its academic and residential buildings and its practice of fixing student and faculty computers free of charge, helped earn the college a top-10 spot last year in a list of "America’s top wired colleges," published by the Princeton Review. Duff, who started at Eckerd College 12 years ago after working in the telecommunications industry, said the school’s IT staff have found ways to improve on its technology services even further this year.

Eckerd’s focus on continuing class schedules even in the aftermath of a hurricane, Duff said, is a point emphasized during freshmen orientation every August.

"We want to create that expectation even before [students] get here," said Duff, 55, who ran Eckerd’s program for adult learners before taking charge of its IT staff a year and a half ago. "It’s something that over the past five or six years has really been a priority for the college. We want to continue to have business as usual. … It’s really crucial to us."

The 1,800-student campus hasn’t been hit by a hurricane so far this year, but Duff recalled years when Eckerd faculty and students evacuated the campus as many as five times during the heart of hurricane season, from May to November.

"The campus has always been spared, though," Duff said, adding that Eckerd College sits about six feet above sea level during high tide on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The college has tested the important switchover from on-campus servers to the off-site data system, and students are warned of the system-wide shift weeks ahead of the test.

Faculty and students still would have access to school eMail accounts during inclement weather, because the backup data center–located in nearby Tampa–runs Eckerd’s eMail servers.

Eckerd was ranked seventh in the 2008 Princeton Review rankings partly because of its free PC diagnosis and repair workshop, where IT employees clean, repair, and upgrade from 30 to 40 student computers a month. Student IT staff members make house calls to dorms that have persistent problems with an internet connection.

Eckerd improved its wireless internet access this summer after a few student complaints last school year about weak signals in dormitories. An intern and a student IT worker mapped out residential areas where wireless signals were scant, and the school installed 44 more access points.

The demand for wireless internet access–as more and more students access the web through mobile devices such as iPhones–has changed dorm culture in recent years, Duff said. Some students aren’t familiar with wired internet access.

"We tell them to plug in, and we’ll have students who don’t know what that means," Duff said with a laugh. "They’re accustomed to having wireless access, which make us feel a little bit older around here. … We’ve seen it reach the stage where there’s that level of expectation. It made us raise out eyebrows."


Eckerd College

America’s Top Wired Colleges 2008


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